Friday, July 08, 2005

The Outhouse Lawyers Revisited

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

- Plato

11 “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.”

Proverbs 28

I think I might just re-post this gem quarterly. It contains the best advice I’ve given in my year of blogging. The original now follows, with one modification:

Every era, every generation has them. They’re society’s resident experts on everything. They know all there is to know about the weather, politics, religion, economics, law, sociology, psychology, marriage, baseball, or any other subject that folks might discuss in polite company. When I was in the Air Force we used to call these good folks “outhouse lawyers.” It was an affectionate appellation of sorts we gave these noble souls because they claimed superior knowledge on any given subject and they did so without the sweat and strain of having to learn about these particular subjects. That is, while they paraded around as experts, they actually knew nothing about what they were talking about.

What does it take to be a member in good standing of the Noble Order of Outhouse Lawyers? Not much, really. Do you have a law degree? No, but you’ve watched Judge Judy enough to know how the law works. That’s enough to qualify you. Have you ever tried to hit a ninety-five mile per hour fastball? No, but that doesn’t really stop many sportswriters who’ve never even been in a batting cage from critiquing the guys who do it day in and day out for a living.

Most often they’re harmless enough. I’ve been an outhouse lawyer a time or two in my life so I’m able to give you an example. I know absolutely nothing about repairing cars or how they actually run. I mean, nothing. Not only that, I’ve never had any real interest in knowing anything about them. But that hasn’t prevented me from acting like I sometimes do. More than once in my life I’ve stood around with the guys while the hood is up. I’ve listened to the conversations. The car won’t start or it coughs and sputters. One of they boys says, “Could be the timing.” Another pulls on a wire or two, investigating. “Plug wires,” I think. Not wanting to be left out I stick my head in and add my two cents. “Sounds to me like a carburetor problem.” Well, the moment I make my declaration everyone who’s gathered answers in unison, “Dillon, this baby’s fuel injected.”

I think you get my point.

As I said, outhouse lawyers are usually harmless enough. It’s when we start electing them or putting them in positions of power that society suffers.

Nikita Khrushchev is a prime example. In his prize winning biography, Bill Taubman notes that Khrushchev was a pipe-fitter by trade, and by all accounts a very good one. Then he joined the communist party. Now the communist party had little need for pipe-fitters, but it did have an enormous need for beaurocrats. Nikita learned this early on in his career and rose through the ranks. In the twenties Stalin appointed him minister of agriculture. What did Nikita know about agriculture? Nothing, actually. He was an outhouse lawyer. And his problem was that he was working for a man, Josef Stalin, who was also an outhouse lawyer. Uncle Joe had devised five and ten year plans to revive the Soviet economy. The plans had nothing to do with reality, but that didn’t seem to matter. If a particular goal wasn’t met there were penalties, usually dispatch to a cemetery or hard labor in the gulags. Now while he was an outhouse lawyer, Nikita wasn’t a fool. He saw that he needed as many layers of insulation between him and Stalin as he could possibly devise. With self-preservation as the goal, he succeeded. Ministries were developed. There was the ministry of winter wheat, the ministry of the beet, the ministry of summer wheat, potatoes, cabbage, and so forth. Each ministry’s appointed chief was… outhouse lawyer. When the five or ten year plans inevitably failed, Nikita had someone to blame. “It was the fault of the head of the ministry of the beet.” The offending minister was then either shot or given a pick to take to Siberia for his failure.

That’s pretty much how communism worked. Nancy met a limo driver once who grew up in one of the eastern European soviet satellites. He once told her that people had adjusted to communism. There was an accommodation of sorts, the people would pretend that they were working and would let the beaurocrats pretend that they were in control. That’s outhouse lawyerism at its very best.

Now we’re not to be outdone in the west. We’ve got them in positions of power too. They’re usually academics and usually lean to the left politically. They’re visionaries, or so they believe. And at the heart of their particular vision is the notion that they are infallible, without regard for contrary opinions, acting “ex-cathedra” from their ivory towers:

“What a vision may offer, and what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane. Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin.”

- Thomas Sowell –
“The Vision of the Anointed”

A great example is a “scholar” named Paul Erlich. Like most academic outhouse lawyers in the sixties and seventies he was concerned with the growth in human population. In his “masterwork,” The Population Bomb, he outlined the problem and the solution. He was convinced that by the turn of the century (2000) population would be totally out of control if something weren’t done to curb it. Like Chicken Little he declared that if something weren’t done hundreds of millions of people would starve to death. His solution was something only an outhouse lawyer could dream up – forced sterilization and euthanasia.

The turn of the century has come and is now almost four full years behind us. Erlich’s prophecy? It turned out to be false. Is Erlich still in vogue? Unfortunately, yes. I took a course in international relations last year at Emporia State and the professor somehow found a way to worm Erlich into the course material, touting him as a great hero of the people, a visionary. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Outhouse lawyers seem to have a way of cloning each other in academia.

But it seems now that the worm has turned. We conservatives have gotten the upper hand. We may not control the universities, but it seems we have considerable political power. It’s enough to make one feel drunk with that power. And therein lies the problem as we chart our national course forward. We are no more immune from becoming outhouse lawyers than Erlich, Khrushchev, George McGovern, JFK’s “brain trust,” or guys like me who don’t know the difference between carburetion and fuel injection.

Yet I hear the anthems of triumphalism sounding all across the American landscape these days. “Christians in power will make the difference.” “We’ll make things right.” “We’re the head and not the tail.”

Haven’t we learned? We’ve had Christian presidents before. Does anybody remember Jimmy Carter? He’s a really nice man. Now he does lean a bit too far to the left for me. But he is a nice man and I’m sure I’ll see him in heaven some day. Does anybody remember what America was like with him as president? Well it was a gawd-awful mess. He was one of our very worst presidents. Don’t you remember? There was the hostage crisis in Iran, the oil crisis, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And how did Jimmy respond. His answer to the Iranians was vacillation. His answer to the Soviets was to punish American athletes by boycotting the Olympic Games. And his answer to American people during the oil crisis was that annoying lecture from the White House, the one where he donned a sweater, told us it was all our collective faults, and to turn our thermostats down to 51 degrees.

Maybe it was all because Jimmy Carter was a flaming liberal. That’s it! It was conservative Christians that we needed all along. If we get them into power, everything will be just fine. Right?

My problem with that thesis is that I’ve met a lot of dumb Christians in my day. They’re nice people, they’re part of my family, but they’re dumb. They know as much about running a country as those outhouse lawyers who mimic Judge Judy know about the law.

Yet I find it interesting that we somehow believe that we Christians can corner the market on intelligence and knowledge. It seem to me that the very thing we’ve accused those left leaning outhouse lawyers is the thing we’re about to engage in. We’re going to barge in and fix everything.

Really? I think we need to take a serious reality check before we barge any further than we have. Aren’t there enough examples from the Bible to warn us? King David was a great king in many ways, but his personal peccadilloes nearly did Israel in. And Solomon, as wise as he was, laid the foundation for his nation’s eventual demise. The prophets even warned Israel to walk humbly and circumspectly, but they didn’t listen. God then used the Assyrians and Babylonians, outhouse lawyers in their own right, to bring the nation to its senses. It took time, but it happened.

Given that, why would we think we, as Christians, have any greater capacity to rule justly or rightly? There’s something about power that’s seductive and we Christians aren’t immune. It seems to me that power and outhouse lawyers can make a toxic social potion. And, I think we need to beware before we barge.

There’s a better course. It’s to live our lives out, quietly, humbly, justly, living, as much as we can, in accord with our neighbors. It may not get us to the halls of temporal power, but it will make us people who have great influence on our communities.

So, I’ll close with these two things. First, we’re not to be society’s outhouse lawyers; we’re to be its servants. And second, whatever knowledge we do have comes from a secure base, a base that will keep us on the path of being society’s servants:

2 Peter 1

Making One's Calling and Election Sure 3”His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.”

It’s as simple as that…..really!


Gone Away said...

Wonderful stuff! More wisdom in that one post than in a thousand outhouse lawyer blogs...

Ed Darrell said...

Lots of wisdom there, yes.

But don't forget: The agricultural failures under Stalin were directly attributable to Stalin's bizarre anti-Darwinist policies, pushed by Trofim Lysenko. Elsewhere in this blog you charge, with a great degree of error, that Darwin was anti-church. It's not a much different charge than Lysenko's claim that Darwin was "too bourgeois," at least in fact. The end result could be the same. Millions starved because anti-Darwin notions of breeding hardy wheat didn't work. There's a moral there, too.

Also, there are many more outhouse lawyers among conservatives than there are on the left. Have you ever tried to lecture a true-blue Republican on economics? Especially the non-economists will quickly tell you you're all wet, regardless your background in economics. Same with law. Same with science.

Same with blogs.